For more than a decade, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program offered through the FACS department of financial planning, housing and consumer economics has offered free tax help to Georgians with moderate incomes, persons with disabilities, the elderly, and limited English-speaking taxpayers.
The program recently expanded through UGA Extension, offering services to taxpayers in more rural areas of Georgia via the internet.
Joan Koonce, Extension Financial Planning Specialist, said she’s excited about the progress the online program demonstrated in its pilot year in 2017 with Extension agents in southwest Georgia, and is looking forward to watching it grow this year.
“We only did it few days each week for one month,” Koonce said. “We saw what worked well and what didn’t work well, and we decided ‘OK, (next year) we’re going to now do it the entire tax season.’ Really, we had greater demand than we could actually keep up with. Next year we’ll have even more agents, but I want to expand as much as we possibly can to serve as many people as possible.”
Koonce worked with Lance Palmer, financial planning professor and director of VITA for UGA, to develop the online program.
During its first year, 387 tax returns were completed. With the help of numerous county agents, taxpayers from every district in Georgia received assistance.
Last tax season, taxpayers from districts all over Georgia would go into their county’s Extension office, where they meet with a county agent to conduct a brief interview and provide required documents.
Following this meeting, the county agents email the required documents to Koonce using an encrypted email service and an email set up specifically for the program.
Meanwhile, students on the Athens campus prepare the taxes early in the week in advance of their virtual meetings with the taxpayers later in the week.
“The students are a big part of this,” Koonce said. “It’s a lot of work, but it is so rewarding.”
The rewards of this service extend to the students as well, as they’re able to participate in this one-of-a-kind learning experience.
In addition to the course credit earned by numerous graduate and undergraduate students for their participation, Koonce notes that the virtual expansion of VITA presents a wider variety of real-life training.
“One of the things that I noticed is that we have a lot of elderly people who are in the southwest and southeast districts that have retirement income and all kinds of tax-related things going on,” Koonce said. “So the students get to really learn about a variety of tax situations.”
Koonce estimates that for every taxpayer helped, VITA saves them an average of $300.
But perhaps the greatest return is captured in what Koonce says motivates her, and so many others, to contribute their time and their efforts to this program.
“I enjoy helping people,” she said.
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